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Judge orders sanity evaluation for accused 9/11 conspirator

In this photograph of a sketch by courtroom artist Janet Hamlin, reviewed by the U.S. Military, Ramzi Binalshibh (seated C) attends a court
In this photograph of a sketch by courtroom artist Janet Hamlin, reviewed by the U.S. Military, Ramzi Binalshibh (seated C) attends a court

By Tom Ramstack

FORT MEADE, Maryland (Reuters) - A U.S. military tribunal judge on Thursday called a temporary halt to hearings for five men accused of conspiring in the September 11, 2001, attacks to allow time to evaluate the sanity of a suspect whose disruptive outbursts have caused him to repeatedly be removed from the courtroom.

That suspect, 41-year-old Yemeni Ramzi Binalshibh, was ordered out of the proceedings on Tuesday and Wednesday for shouting about "torture" and a "secret CIA prison."

U.S. Army Colonel Judge James Pohl said he planned to convene a military sanity board to assess whether Binalshibh's mental health is adequate for him to participate in his own legal defense.

"Until this is completed, there will be no further open hearings in this case," Pohl said in a hearing at the Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base in Cuba, which was viewed by Reuters in a closed-circuit broadcast at the Fort Meade, Maryland, army base.

James Harrington, civilian attorney for Binalshibh, said: "We agree that the proceedings have to stop, or abate, until this is determined."

Binalshibh is accused of wiring money to 9/11 hijackers and passing information to key al-Qaeda operatives.

On Tuesday, as the judge asked Binalshibh whether he understood his right to be present during the hearing, he initially said he did not understand, then voiced loud complaints about torture.

One of his attorneys said prison guards repeatedly made banging noises that kept Binalshibh awake at night.

On Wednesday, Binalshibh once more became disruptive in court, saying: "I told you. I asked you to stop these noises ... vibrations." He accused the Guantanamo Bay prison warden of being a war criminal.

He was again escorted out of the courtroom. Military officials deny the abuse charges.

The guidelines for Binalshibh's mental health evaluation are set under the Rules for Military Commission 706. Military sanity evaluation boards normally consist of at least three mental health professionals.

A separate sanity board for Guantanamo detainee Abd al-Rahim al Nashiri in early 2013 determined that he was competent to stand trial.

Nashiri is awaiting trial as the alleged mastermind of the October 12, 2000, suicide bombing of the USS Cole that killed 17 American sailors at the port of Aden in Yemen.

The five defendants whose hearing was held this week are accused of playing key roles in plotting the September 11 attacks, which killed about 3,000 people, destroyed the World Trade Center in New York City and damaged the Pentagon in Washington. They could be executed if convicted of charges that include mass murder, terrorism and hijacking. They were captured by the U.S. military in 2002 and 2003.

(Editing by Scott Malone and Gunna Dickson)

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